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Lee was almost two days out of Maryland when she saw the newspaper. She was struggling to eat dinner at the Moon Man, a brightly lit diner just outside of Richmond, hunched over with fever, fighting sleep. The waitress, harshly pretty, dimming into middle age, was dressed in starchy nurse's whites, a black apron cinching her waist. She took one long measuring look at Lee and then glided right over, leaning across the blue counter. "Anything else you need, honey?" she said. "There's hot coffee just brewed."
Lee, sandwich midmouth, saw her over a horizon of grilled cheese. The waitress had a pink plastic Saturn bobbing over her left breast. ADELE, it said in careful curlicued script, She had lavender eyeglasses dangling from a tarnished chain about her neck and stiffly blonded hair pruned and shaped like topiary. She leaned toward Lee with so much cheerful concern, it made Lee nervous. "I don't drink it," Lee said.
"You and my daughter both," Adele said, swabbing down the counter with a dirty red cloth. "A full-grown woman and she lives on that lousy cocoa from a mix." She made graceful parabolas with the cloth. "You kind of remind me of her. Neither one of you knows a single thing about nutrition. Jesus, just look at that plate of yours. Last I heard, grease wasn't exactly one of the four basic food groups. There's such a thing as a nice green salad. You could have ordered our tuna plate and made out just fine," she said. Adele shook her head at Lee's circuitry of french fries and then lifted her cloth, rinsing it in the sink under a spumy stream of water. "You got kids?" she said amiably, wringing out the cloth. Lee flinched.
"Never," she said stiffly, concentrating on the pale circle of skin where her wedding band used to be. She had gotten fifty dollars for it that morning at a jewelry shop right down the street.
"You will," Adele said as if soothing her. "Why, you got plenty of time to change your mind."
She started cleaning farther along the counter, joking with the men sitting there, scooping up tips and trash, stabbing on her glasses to squint out the total on a bill. "You interested in this?" she called, picking up a paper someone had left. '"Washington Post," she said, sliding it down the counter toward Lee, "Today's too and not a dot of gravy on it."
Unnerved, Lee blinked at the paper in front of her. She hadn't once read a newspaper or heard the news since she had left Baltimore. She had been too rushed, too conscious of the trailing, ominous echo of footsteps, the delicate brush of an arm steeling to grab. It was the Post, she told herself, not the Baltimore Daily Press; it didn't have to have any news in there about her. She smoothed down the paper with the flat of one hand, but she suddenly felt uneasy, as if she were being watched. She stared back up along the counter, but Adele was pouring long foamy trails of coffee into chipped white cups; two men in faded plaid shirts were passing a crumpled pack of Camel filters behind the back of a third. Everyone under the watery glare of the fluorescent lights looked a strange sallow yellow, but they were living their own lives, not hers; she might have been invisible for all the attention she was getting.
To her left, the front door loomed. Six o'clock and the sun was still beating through the glass, and there she was, the only person here who was so shivery in the artificial cool that she was slouched into a wool plaid jacket half as yellow as her hair. She looked back down at the paper, anticipation muddied with fear.
Lee's focus stumbled across the front page, There were rumors of another nuclear disaster in Russia; garbled reports of possible radioactivity filtering through the drinking supply. The mayor had issued a war on drugs because his son had been shot to death while buying heroin in some back alley. He swore he had never so much as seen his kid take an aspirin, that's how clean the kid was.
She skimmed, past page two, pages five and six, bouncing her focus from picture to picture, catching only the first few words of every headline. There was nothing that even hinted of her. She was on page thirty already, with only two more pages of the paper to go, and then she turned the page, glancing uneasily at a small section, bannered in black, titled "Regional News." And then she saw it. There, sandwiched between one story about a ten-year-old caught joyriding his mother's car in Pikesville and another report of a brutal parking lot murder, was a grainy black-and-white photograph. A girl with voluminous hair and a wobbling grave smile, one arm shielded stiffly across her body.
Lee's hands, in a sudden skip of fear, recoiled from the page. She knew that picture. Jim had taken it the day they had run away from Philadelphia to get married. They had been in a hurry, flushed, overdressed in the bruised June heat. Lee's father and his new wife were probably looking for her; they'd called the police once because of her, they could do it again. Still, Jim had insisted on posing her against the grimy edge of the waiting Greyhound bus. Leaning toward her, he had pushed up the collar of her leather jacket. As soon as he stepped away from her, she flipped it back down. Her green knapsack had bit into her shoulder, weighted with jeans and sweaters and books and half a dozen pieces of the intricately carved silverware her mother had left her. Lee still had a single silver fork, wrapped in disintegrating blue tissue paper, tucked carefully at the bottom of her purse. At night she gently peeled the tissue from the fork, turning it so it caught and broke up the light, studying her reflection in between the tarnish. She was enough of her mother's daughter to have inherited some superstition; sometimes she talked herself into believing the fork had powers. It might be this was a talisman, a protective gift from a mother who might watch more over her in death than she ever had in life. She'd wish on the tines, squinching her eyes shut so tightly that she saw stars of color pulse across her lids.
The photo wavered in front of her, the face of an eerily familiar stranger. Lee tracked it with a ragged edge of nail. She didn't even look like that girl anymore. All that hair was shorn. The lean angularity, the coltish boniness, were softened, That girl's life had nothing to do with hers anymore. That girl had still been in high school, barely seventeen, just a wild betrayed heart who had gotten into trouble once too often, who had had to flee to escape being sent away. A girl so panicky she had actually thought Jim was a temporary solution.
"That's some look on your face, sweetie," Adele said, leaning over to her. "Someone you know die?"
"I changed my mind, I want the coffee," Lee said.
"Now you're being smart," Adele said, pivoting away,
Missing, the newspaper said. Missing. She was suddenly dizzy. The diner seemed to shift in space, disorienting her, and when she looked down at the newspaper again, the words beneath her picture braided together. Abruptly, she closed the paper and stood up, toppling her plate, skidding fries and gravy across the clean counter.
"Oh, bloody hell," Adele said, setting down the pot, reaching for a rag.
"I have to go," Lee said abruptly, glancing at the watch she wore that hadn't worked all week, Every time she looked down at it, it was the wrong time. She clicked open her purse, digging around for loose bills.
She quickly pushed some crumpled dollars toward the waitress, and while Adele's back was turned, she stuffed the newspaper deep within her jacket. She wondered who here might already have seen her picture and made connections. Someone could be casually wandering over to a pay phone right that minute and dialing the police. Lee hadn't been able to read the article; she didn't know if there was any reward out on her. That would be like Jim to do. There were people in Baltimore who did nothing but stare at the Wanted photos in the post office. There was one woman who actually made sketches of the faces, who kept a notebook on possible suspects. There were people who had whole dreams constructed on reward money, on recognizing faces no matter how changed they might be. Lifting herself up from her stool, Lee twisted toward the phone. A woman, her hair in pink sponge rollers, was crying into the phone. "How many times can I say I'm sorry?" she wept.
Adele put a hand on Lee's arm.
"Change," Adele said, She held out a fist full of money, but Lee was already at the door, jerking it open, stepping out into a smothering noose of heat.
She ate hot dusty gulps of air; she was still moving too slowly. Her body felt rusty, but her mind was racing, skimming on the surface of every possible danger, and tormenting her. She had planned on one more night in Richmond, just to get a little stronger, but now she was taking the next train out of here, no matter where it was going.
The bus stop was just another block, an open green wood shelter with a splintered bench inside, and she could already see from here how deserted it was. As soon as she got to the bench, her legs collapsed beneath her. Lee peered down the ribbon of road, bracing her hand against the bench, and then abruptly she pulled the paper out of her jacket and riffled it open to her picture again.
They got most of the details right. Except it wasn't such a mystery. Not to her.
She had planned carefully, packing her hospital suitcase, tucking in a brand-new outfit Jim didn't even know she owned, a sleeveless blue jersey dress she could slide into, a pair of black shoes that wouldn't show the dirt, and an Orioles baseball cap she had bought on the street for just two dollars, There was money, too. Five thousand dollars of Jim's, from a joint savings account. She would have cleaned out the entire account if she hadn't needed Jim's signature in order to do it or if she'd had the slightest talent in forging his name. Instead she'd depleted the account of everything but twenty dollars. The statement wouldn't come for a month, and what money Jim needed, he took from a separate checking account. Lee had kept the money thickly folded up in an envelope, layered under a bag of old clothes in the closet. Every time he even went near the closet, she found some reason to bring him away.
In the hospital she had insisted on a private room, on a door she could keep closed. "Why, there's another mother named Lee, too!" the admitting nurse had gushed, as if Lee might become friends with this other Lee for life. "This is her third, and already she's making plans for a fourth," the nurse had said, patting Lee's arm. "You have any questions, she's the expert." But Lee had no intention of talking to her or to any of the other mothers. She was afraid of all that camaraderie. She didn't want to hear one word about miracles and magic and bonding. She didn't want to know one single thing about what she might end up missing. And most of all she didn't want to see the baby because, then, she might never leave at all. The baby. Oh, God.
She had never intended marrying Jim, never intended winding up terrified and trapped in a suburb, where she had more in common with the kids than with their strongly settled young mothers, She was waitressing, saving money for a train ticket out, edging toward eighteen and freedom. How had escape backfired into prison?
She had had no signs, No clutch of nausea in the morning. No cravings, She didn't feel one thing different until she missed her second period, and then she began waking in the middle of the night, slick with sweat, in a dizzying panic,
"What's wrong?" Jim said. She brushed the air away from her. "My period," she said. "I'm getting it."
She lay spooned beside him. He flung one leg over her hip, pinning her down. Wriggling, she freed herself. "Where you going?" he said. "Drink of water," she told him. Padding in the dark, she went to the kitchen and rummaged for her mother's silver fork; she wished so hard on it, the edges dug into her fingers,
The next morning she went out and bought herself a box of tampons, leaving it on the dresser where Jim would see it, and then, terrified, she called a doctor.
She kept telling herself that the baby was nothing, not big enough to be real. She had even thought of getting rid of it. She had put on a new rose-colored dress, She brushed her hair down her back and had gone all the way into the clinic, giving her name, sitting down on one of the brightly colored plastic chairs. She had one friend who had had an abortion. Her mother had paid for it, had sat outside in the waiting room, crying into a handkerchief. There was nothing wrong with it, she gave her change for the cause, she signed petitions and argued for the rights of women, but when she heard her own name called, something seemed to breathe inside of her. Her bones suddenly filled with fluid. "I—I'll be right back," she stammered. "I forgot something."
She cocked her head toward the door and then walked out again, past the protesters who swarmed paper leaflets toward her.
She had tried again, a different clinic this time. Cleaner, more expensive, with a different class of protesters, more tired looking, less vociferous, women in faded fur coats who just looked at Lee sadly. And when she left this clinic, too, she told herself she still had time, that women got abortions later on, it was just more difficult. Her buttery heart was not going to ruin her.
She hated herself for feeling anything toward the baby, for being so weak. If she concentrated, she could get through a whole day sometimes without thinking about the baby at all. But then, there she would be, dipping to fetch a can of corn, turning in bed, and she'd somehow sense the baby inside of her. She swore she felt a presence, and she felt sorry for it, "Oh, now," she'd whisper. "Now, now." She'd put a hand on her stomach, soothing, murmuring, not seeing Jim waking up beside her, lifting himself up on one elbow to listen, his face baffled. "I'm whispering to you," she said, moving her hand from her stomach to his.
"Are you saying 'I love you'?" he said hopefully. "You never say 'I love you' to me."
She gave him a wan smile.
"I know you do," he told her. "I love you. Forever."
She did this dance. She tried pretending she wasn't pregnant at all, but her body kept betraying her. Mornings, she stumbled to the bathroom, flooding the tub with water so Jim wouldn't hear her throwing up. She couldn't keep breakfast down, so she stopped eating it, complaining to Jim that she was trying to starve off the few extra pounds that even he could see.
She took days off her waitressing job at the Silver Spoon and watched whole lazy afternoons unwind, sitting at one of the local coffee shops sipping a malted and laughing and talking to whoever would come and sit down beside her. And there was always someone, always another pair of eyes in which she might see a future different from her own.
"Sweetie," Jim said one morning, watching her rising carefully from the bed, "maybe we ought to cut out all that ice cream at night." He nodded toward the slope of her belly, and she suddenly sat back down on the bed. "It's just a few pounds," Jim said encouragingly.
"I'm pregnant," Lee said. She was suddenly furious with him. He looked at her, stunned.
"I didn't want to tell you," she said.
Astonished, he blinked at her. "A baby? We're having a family?" Laughing, tumbling, and springing, he flopped on the bed. He pulled her toward him, burying his face in her hair. "But, why wouldn't you want to tell me?" He hoisted himself up on one elbow, studying her. "Why are you looking like that? What's wrong?"
She sank under the covers. He tugged them from her and rested his face on her belly.
"Stop," she said, pushing him out of the way. He looked up at her. "I don't want it," she said.
He sat up, frowning. "You're just scared," he told her finally. He tried to brush back her hair, but she moved away from him.
"It's natural to be scared," he said.
"My mother had me when she was eighteen. Lots of people have babies young. We may have to prune our expenses a little. Maybe not go out as much."
"When do we go out now?" she said.
"You don't want to go out with a baby anyway," he said. He looked at her solemnly for a moment; his fingers found her mouth. "Don't say you don't want it. You don't mean it. I know you don't." He kissed her still frozen face. "Can you imagine? A little one with your face?"
Excerpted from Into Thin Air by Caroline Leavitt. Copyright © 1993 Caroline Leavitt. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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